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Road to 100 to cherish for Doc Blakely

Thursday, June 27, 2024 - 2:07 PM

Over 12 years to complete his medical studies and two knee reconstructions have meant that Swan Districts ruckman Nathan Blakely thought 100 WAFL games might have been out of reach, but he couldn't be more thankful to have made it.

When Blakely initially joined Swan Districts for good to begin his senior football career back in 2012, he had no idea the ride that would lie ahead both on and off the field, and the obstacles he would overcome to now reach 100 games.

There were times when Blakely thought his WAFL career was over too like when he had to undergo a second knee reconstruction in 2016 and then his on-going work as a doctor and medical studies meant committing to Swan Districts was impossible over 2021 and 2022.

Commitments away from football haven't diminished for Blakely with him just completing the last of his exams to become an anaesthetist along with working full-time and at all hours. He and partner Jemma have also now welcomed daughter Marli into the world.

However, his love for Swan Districts Football Club runs deep and getting to run around in the ruck for Swans on a weekend gives him an escape from everything else. Then the faith coach Andrew Pruyn has in him means he's never enjoyed his football more.

That all leads to a memorable occasion for Blakely this Sunday with the 32-year-old to play his 100th game with Swan Districts at Steel Blue Oval against West Coast. It will see him become the 98th player from the 1146 to ever represent Swans to make it to 100 games.

Thoughts on reaching 100 games?

When Blakely made his league debut with Swan Districts, he thought reaching 100 games might come within five years and everything would be a smooth ride. 

It's fair to say that hasn't quite been the case and missing almost two full years in 2016 and 2017 after a second knee reconstruction, and then having to step away totally in 2021 and 2022 meant reaching the century looked like it could never happen.

So much so that his parents got him a framed jumper recongising his 79-game career up to the end of 2020, but to have now come back the past 18 months and once again be leading the ruck at Swans make him rightfully proud to reach the century.

"It's something that early on it was a bit of a pipe dream and you just think everything will be all rosy. But by the time I had my second ACL in 2016 and I had a couple of years off, and didn't think I'd ever come back," Blakely said.

"Then once I got into my anaesthetics training it was going to be quite hard again because I was working down in Rockingham too so I had a couple of years playing amateurs. 

"I didn't think I'd get back but it wasn't really until Pruey took over as coach when he was trying to create a culture with the mixture of guys we have now where you can still play with a slightly different preparation.

"That was a big driver for me and without Pruey at the helm now it definitely couldn't have happened so him amongst other people have helped me along the way."

As for the 100-game milestone itself, it's something that means a lot to Blakely just to know that he will be part of the history of Swan Districts Football Club as one of the first 100 players in the 90-year history to get to the century mark.

"In terms of what it means, it's quite special. I guess it's reward for effort and it's a bit like cricket, where scoring one more run than 99 doesn't make you a better player, but it means so much," he said.

"So it's also a good time to reflect so this week I've already sent quite a few messages out to people thanking them for helping me along the way. It's also special for mum and dad who have seen all the ups and downs along with my partner and now our daughter.

"It's a good chance to reflect and then there are things like the name on the locker that make it special and it gives you an opportunity to reflect to know you'll always be a 100-game player when you come back in years to come."

Thinking it might never happen

Making the milestone mean all that much more to Blakely is the fact that there was a couple of different times during the past 10 years where he had to come to terms with the fact that whether it was his body or his commitments as a doctor that meant 100 games wasn't possible.

However, when Andrew Pruyn took over as coach to start 2022 he saw a vision that Blakely would be leading his ruck and it's rejuvenated Blakely at the same time.

"I'm loving it and footy has been a great escape for me. Life has been a bit tougher the last few years just with work and exams and everything, and I never thought I'd have this part of career," Blakely said.

"So it's almost like I'm on extra time or bonus time, and I never thought I would be here. My dad and mum even got me a jumper a couple of years ago that was framed with a placard looking on my career after my 79 games which is hanging up in my office.

"But looking back on that while I'm sitting there studying has made me appreciate getting this extra stage of my career and it's been a lot of fun. It's a unique part of my career and Pruey always says big men never start to flourish until late 20s or early 30s, and it feels like that."

Understanding strengths of game

Blakely is also at a point in his career as a 32-year-old where he understands the strengths he brings to his team and isn't letting stats dicate the way he judges his impact. 

Most weeks he is giving up plenty of size to the opposition ruckmen he comes up against and he always has whether it was early on against the likes of Mark Seaby and Paul Johnson or currently opposed to players like Scott Jones who he competed so hard against last Saturday.

What Blakely does is that even if he doesn't win the hit out count, he is able to limit the impact of his opponents while then being more effective as a ball winner around the ground.

It has taken some time to get his head around the fact that he might not dominate all areas, but the fact he can enhance his strengths and compete so hard is something that has him comfortable in his current role.

"I've now got such a better understanding of my game now and knowing what I'm good at, but early on I was more insecure about how I was going and stacked up against the other ruckmen," Blakely said.

"Now I don't care about the ruck knocks or anything, I just try to compete and Pruey is happy with what I provide for the team and I know exactly what I can offer around the ground.

"I think that comes from years of learning your game, having a coach that believes in you and having teammates that know what you bring, and being secure. That does take time and it's hard as an 18, 19 or 20-year-old and take it, and be confident in what you offer and you are best at.

"You can also look at someone like Leigh Kohlmann and it's just at this point of his career that he's confident in what he does and that's on the back of his big goalkicking seasons in the amateurs or country.

"It's not all the time a ruckman has more touches than ruck knocks, but that’s what can be unique about what I bring and that's become one of my strengths while just embracing the things you have to give up."

Impact of Percy Johnson

Blakely will never thank anyone more than his dad for the help and support in his formative years playing football, but since joining Swan Districts there's nobody who has had a greater impact than Percy Johnson.

The West Australian Football Hall of Famer dedicated a lot of the later years of his life to guiding the next generation of the state's ruckmen and that included Blakely, which he will forever be thankful for.

So much so that one of the biggest honours in his life was being a pallbearer at his funeral alongside the likes of Stephen Michael, Greg Harding and other WA football greats because of their relationship and connection formed.

"No one has had more of an impact on my career than Percy Johnson aside from my dad. Dad was so good with the advice he gave me all through my junior years, but since leaving home and coming to Swans, Percy has been the biggest single influence," Blakely said.

"A lot of other people around the state can say that too and he was such a giving person, and we see that with other footy royalties like John Todd pass away and how many people come out to talk about their influence. Percy just gave so much to me and he would always make any ruckman feel so special.

"He was incredibly hard on you at the same time and he would annoy me so much because he wanted me to concentrate on my family and studies so I think he would love to see now that I have finished my anaesthetics training and have a young daughter while still playing.

"I think he would be very proud and he was just so good at reinforcing the things that I'm good at and to get better at them, and was always pushing me up for selection when he had any influence with Greg or Pickers.

"He could see what I could provide to a team and I'll forever be thankful to him for that. He's easily been the best thing for me since leaving home away from dad, and I will always have a special place in my heart for him."

Presence of long-term teammates

There are plenty of teammates that Blakely has formed lifelong bonds with that won't be out there with him for the milestone on Sunday including current teammates Alex Howard and Leigh Kohlmann who are still out with concussion symptoms.

However, Blakely cherishes all the relationships that he's formed with players since coming to Swan Districts and that doesn't matter whether they are still out there on a weekend with him or not.

"I don't think they'll be back in time for Sunday with those concussions meaning they are a bit more delayed, and Howie is having a couple of symptoms still and with Leigh having a second one," Blakely said.

"I know we all want that fairytale moment and it would be great to have Leigh, Howie, Erceg, Tony Stephens, Tony Notte, Jesse Turner and those guys all out there who have been around my whole career.

"But we are all just passing through and I don’t think you need to be on the ground together to share it with people. There are so many others I'd love to be there like Swoop Geappen, Wes Lammie, Justin Simpson, Tallan Ames and I could go on.

"They are all people I looked up to immensely early in my career, but we are all just passing through and it still means the most to see these guys whether we are playing together or not.

"Now I look forward to in five or 10 years' time and coming down with my daughter and watching on from the bank as the next generation reach their 50th and 100th games."

Potential of success in 2024

This current team of 2024 might be the one that gives Blakely the best chance in his career of being part of some genuine success as well.

Of the 99 games Blakely has now played in his career at Swan Districts, only one has been a final and that was a loss all the way back in 2014 when younger brother Connor was in the team with him.

Swans lost to East Fremantle that day and Blakely still thinks it's a great missed opportunity considering the Sharks went on to reach a preliminary final where they shot themselves in the foot with bad kicking against a wounded Subiaco.

Blakely hasn’t been at Swans for a finals appearance since, but this current team with a standout midfield at his feet still featuring Jesse Turner, Josh Cipro and Aidan Clarke while topped up by Nik Rokahr and Jye Chalcraft leading their charge.

The back-line anchored still by Tony Notte and when healthy Leigh Kohlmann the spearhead in attack, and quality emerging players all over the park. Blakely is rightfully excited that this team can keep rolling on a current four-game winning streak.

"It's always hard to know how you will go in any season and you're always optimistic in the pre-season but it does feel as though moments are starting to go our way and Pruey has always said that we are good enough," Blakely said.

"Our offensive ball movement is especially good and things are starting to turn for us at the moment. We've won four on the trot, hopefully five this week and then with West Perth and Claremont after that.

"We did have a good momentum period back in a season when Connor and I were playing where we started on fire, and made finals and thought we were a real chance before losing to East Freo.

"At the moment it feels like this is the best momentum we've had in a long time but footy is such an inches game. If we don't get a free-kick on the weekend or East Freo don't kick that goal after the siren, and things can change so dramatically.

"Then at the end of the season and you look back on and there's a results tally and the finals results where it's written in lore, but there's a lot that goes into that. I do feel like we are good enough this year and our offensive stuff is really good, but we can still improve on things defensively."

While Blakely is fully aware that things can so easily change and winning one game just before the siren last week with a Tom Edwards goal or losing after the siren to East Fremantle highlights that, he can't be happier with the excitement starting to build.

"It's exciting being part of things right now and you can see the last couple of weeks how strong our crowd numbers have been at Bassendean, and everyone's really up and about," he said.

"Our post-match bar attendance has been huge and the bar staff have said we've been getting really big numbers so there's so much to like.

"Hopefully if that continues I know there'll be a bit of a giant awakening kind of like Richmond or Collingwood in the AFL where a lot of people come out of the woodwork to get behind Swans if we can keep winning games.

"That will give us a huge push because you can see what happened back in 2010 the last time we had some success."

Having a young family now

Life away from football is incredibly full for Blakely as well with his work as an anaesthetic doctor and now he and partner Jemma have recently welcomed daughter Marli into the world.

He can't wait to celebrate Sunday’s milestone with both and continuing to watch her grow over the coming years with sport in the blood considering his and brother Connor's football, and now cricket, background, and the water polo on the side of not only Jemma but her standout brothers George and Andrew.

"Little Marli is going great. She has been a nice little new gift to Jemma and I, and it will be special having her there," Blakely said.

"She won't remember any of this but it will be cool to have those photos as memories and to be able to show her what dad did, and what we were balancing in our lives. She might even end up pursuing some sort of sport too following some side of the family.

"On Jemma's side, she has members of her family who have played water polo for Australia at the Olympics and Connor has played AFL and is loving cricket at the moment. Jemma has been a big swimmer and played a bit of footy as well so hopefully Marli ends up enjoying sport.

"But it's just nice to get to celebrate a milestone like this for the family you get to share it with and that's what I've embraced the last couple of years with the memories and joy you can bring to people around you.

"It can be hard to bring everyone together, but me playing on Saturdays provides a great chance for all our family members and friends to come together so if I've been able to enable that then it will be a memory I always cherish."